Ah, the SEO report. Sometimes the bane of our existence. Some agencies spend the majority of their time creating monthly detailed monstrosities, while others might send quick, white-labeled exports. Meanwhile, smart companies (like Seer) look for ways to use APIs and programming to speed up data pulling. At Greenlane, we took this approach as well; Keith, my partner and incurable data nerd, created our out-of-the-box reports to pull API data on traditional SEO metrics like rankings (yes – we still believe in the value), natural traffic (at the month over month and year over year level), natural conversions (same range), and every necessary target landing page metric we could think of. Then after discussing clients’ own KPIs, we add more obligatory reports to our default set.
But pulling data is only a means to an end. Data exports – especially the scheduled kind – are huge time savers. However, the downside to these automatic data pulls is the lack of necessity to go into analytics platforms to “poke around”. Simply put, you need to look for trends, see how data correlates with each other, and investigate why things are (and are not) happening as expected. You need to have notes of what you want to check for each month when you pull your reports. You need to let data inspire questions and direct you to answers. This data is what should be driving your day-to-day optimizations.
No child ever wanted to be a “report monkey” when they grew up. You shouldn’t be one either.
Learn To Love The Reports
I’m guilty. In a past life, I was part of a company that spent so much time – by hand – downloading Omniture reports, copy and pasting cells, customizing charts, running formulas, and beautifying spreadsheets. I can make a spreadsheet look like a work of art (though Annie will always have me beat). It took 10+ hours a month. Looking back, this was a total waste of clients’ money. That’s not what we were hired to do, yet we got away with it. Granted, I do believe the aesthetics of an attractive report can at least semi-consciously suggest to the recipients your agency has talent and the money to invest in quality output (whereas this “money” may indicate success), but that’s only going to help you for so long. It’s like seeing a beautiful deck at a conference presentation – like it or not, it does give the perception of capability. This is the marketing industry after all.
But when you’re spending so much time pulling, shaping, tweaking, and formatting, you’re spending less time being a marketing detective.
I’m the guy in the company who (probably annoyingly) squawks about fonts, consistency, and aesthetics, etc… all for the reasons above. But Keith and I both feel that the reports not only have a value to the client, but a value to our team as well. These reports ultimately make our job easier. The process of creating these timely reports – believe it or not – is what makes us better at our jobs:
- Reporting helps marketers find trends they can use to tweak campaigns
- Reporting helps marketers come up with strategies and tactics they can try out on other clients as well
- Reporting helps improve your ability to make educated guesses
- Reporting gives you the ability to tie your work to ROI and validate your job
- Reporting helps you come up with areas of opportunity that could improve the marketing mix which might otherwise go unnoticed forever
- Reporting helps you learn Excel (vital if you’re new to the industry)
What The Clients Really Want To See
I’ve worked agency-side most my professional life. I did however have a brief stint as a client. It was very useful, as it helped me understand the daily challenges of an in-house marketer; especially the many directions they are often pulled in. When I first got reports from our PPC vendor or social marketing vendor, I wanted to tear into them. Talk strategy. Get the learnings. But, I was busy as hell. Eventually I just wanted the most impactful highlights.
An executive summary or a quick blurb of succinct natural language explanation can go a long way, especially in companies where these reports get passed around. You know the frustration you feel when you see a slidedeck on Slideshare, but can’t make any sense of the slides? You missed the accompanying presentation which sometimes leaves you more confused than ever as you click through the slides. It doesn’t mean the slides were bad or valueless – it just meant the context wasn’t there. A good executive summary provides the context.
Here’s an example of something a client might see at the bottom of one of our spreadsheet reports (click for larger image):
However, executive summaries can be dangerous for the clients if executed poorly. Many clients tend to accept the executive summary without questioning. Whether you have a client who uses the executive summary to dig into your brain, or one who just accepts as it, you owe it to them as hired contractors to provide the information they really need. Don’t let their lack of questions lead you into creating valueless executive summaries.
Clearly I think natural language is extremely important in telling a marketing (and data) story. Another option we recently discovered (and strongly recommend you check out for yourself) is Wordsmith For Marketing, a new service that can actually write textual reports based on data, saving your team time. We’ve started working with them and are really blown away by the exports. How a computer is writing reports like these are beyond me:
This is just a part of the long, detailed PDF. The service pulls the data from a Google Analytics connection, and lets you go in and move items and add your own content. See the summary above? That was completely written by the computer, using words like “moderate loss” and “conversion rate also slipped.” Pretty incredible, with a very cool roadmap of features to come.
This is by far the first “push-button” report I’ve seen that actually provides contextual value, but we still encourage our team to take it further. Since Wordsmith easily allows you to add bullets and more context, we ask our team to fill in any gaps needed by affixing more observations and recommendations right into the report. For example, did we work on a specific campaign last month (with or without goal tracking)? Wordsmith won’t know, so our account managers must include all that. It’s a very useful merging of technology and manual digging that still cuts down a ton of hours.
Imagine a client running eCommerce product pages on a modern JS framework. It’s responsive and sexy but it’s not drawing search traffic. Data could suggest an evaluation of the code where you might find AngularJS, something you can drive to fix with proxies. Alternatively, imagine a client has tons of duplicate product pages – immediately your instinct is to pull the pages, put in robots/noindex solutions, and canonical tags. Yet, the data could suggest that Google already figured out the duplication issue and is still driving good traffic to the dupe pages regardless. Finally, imagine a client got a little too aggressive with a former link campaign and suddenly got stuck with an algorithmic penalty on their a deeper landing page only. Digging in deeper to a site’s analytics can quickly help you pinpoint the problem and give you a course of correction, plus help develop the priority.
These are examples you don’t get from just topical exports. The data can help you develop, prioritize, and execute all day long. Sure, it’s a pain losing the natural search keyword data with [not provided], but while that adds complexity to the keyword work in SEO, there’s still plenty of other SEO initiatives and experiments you can easily create just by making deeper data dives an important part of your day-to-day, or providing reports that you and your clients truly find valuable.
Embrace and optimize (see what I did there?) your SEO reports, but make sure you’re keeping the goals of these reports in mind all along. Once completed, the time should be spent analyzing the data and creating strategies, not creating the reports themselves. If your goals aren’t to empower your clients and empower yourselves, while holding your own feet to the fire to achieve results, you’re probably doing it wrong. Creating the right reports should be for educating both you and your clients, thus helping you really learn your chops as a marketer, while allowing the client to see the benefits of your great work.